Things from your life

Words & resources by Brian Kerr in Tacoma, Washington 98406

Any physical thing

Ten years ago today, a colleague said, by way of explanation, in a meeting of people talking about software under fluorescent lights:

“An object is any physical thing in the directory.”

The person was referring to a software construct and its relationship to another software construct. It was just a passing comment, and I don’t remember the intent of the meeting or its outcome. (Given the organization, let’s assume the meeting had no purpose and that we did not meet it.) But I do remember writing the remark down, and mulling it over, and knowing that I was ready to move on; it wasn’t long before I’d quit that job and started things that were at least different and possibly even better. That said, I sometimes find myself returning to that phrase, while waiting for a train to arrive or a phone call to end: What is an object? Any physical thing. Where do you find such physical things? In the directory. What is the directory? — and so forth, until the train whistles or the call is finished and it’s time to move on to the next physical thing.

The glass

Now here’s a little parable, or joke:

The optimist says that the glass is half-full.
The pessimist says that the glass is half-empty.
The lean consultant recommends finding a smaller glass.

This parable, or joke, is a pocket-sized exemplar of what’s good — and what’s insufficient — about lean thinking.

What’s good

There’s an acknowledgement of contingency. People have their own beliefs, perspectives, and intuitions. These can be respected without reference to validity or necessity.

It’s a response to the situation as encountered. No part of this story is about finding individual culpability or placing blame. Neither is there any discussion about how things “should” be, or even how much water is “enough”. (Although how much water people want is a different matter entirely.)

It’s about making a discrete, intentional change. You know, given an existing situation that isn’t to everybody’s satisfaction, even an arbitrary change might wind up making things better.

What’s insufficient

The proposed resolution isn’t necessarily a useful improvement all by itself. It could be meaningless tidying up, and could in fact be valuable; either way it’s disconnected from the larger environment and intents shared by both the optimist and pessimist. The basic principles that were bundled up into lean (a) have to do with correlating the work everybody is doing with the actual purpose of the organization they work in and (b) very rarely come up in “lean work” or “lean projects”.

There’s a tremendous amount of fatigue out there related to lean thinking and lean transformations. We’ve all seen this kind of thing before: feel-good rearranging of deck chairs; a dollop of anal retentiveness over box lunches and cheerful whiteboards.

Unfortunately, that’s skepticism that lean has earned over the decades, and you have to respect people who feel that way.

Lean and related jargon are terms that have reached peak fluff. (Example: last week a trainer for a proprietary, nightmarishly over-complicated content management system told me that the product in question was lean because “you can administer it from a web browser and not a desktop application and it has great ROI.” That is a direct quote.) All this damage is the reason I try to talk around the term “lean”, and prefer instead to focus on the underlying practices and motivations — which, ironically, are usually as novel and exciting to people as lean itself is overtired and stale.

No capital L

What is lean, anyways? Is it a system, a tool, or a cult? As always, depends on who’s buying, and who’s selling. Here’s my advice:

If you want to learn about lean, read only books from before 01980, with one exception: W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis. This was published in 01982 but is in fact a retrospective of his decades of work. If you do read the book, count how many times he uses the word “lean”, and then use it about as often as he does.

Also, you might want to get yourself a smaller glass.

On only living once

We live, and live again. We live many lives each day. Dying is what we do just the once, and that’s not so much fun to tweet about.

Who has time to live once? That sounds like it’d go on for years. Nobody can deal with all that in this world of months, weeks, and days, each more hardassed and unceasing than the last.

The English majors among us know that all you have to do to live another life is to pick up a book or watch a movie or play a video game; that we’re consciousness-stricken animals who can’t help but pluck narrative out of the ether — the old thing about slowing down a vampire, just dump out a sack of rice whereupon its rampage is overridden by a sudden need to count the grains? That’s us. Just give us a TV show about a hardened criminal / family man throwing pizza onto a roof and bam we’re transported.

I live in a nice little neighborhood. Houses small and old but well-kept. The 01920s were the key, here. Before, it was sort of where the mill pond used to be, up the road from the streetcar. Afterwards: a part of a neighborhood, part of a city. Today, in 02014 —

Let’s talk for a moment about what it means to live, however many times, in 02014. This is one year before RoboCop, based on every single cultural input I received as an impressionable child, is scheduled to throw countless 99%ers into toxic goo “back home”. 02014 is the future. We made it. Only five short years remain to turn Los Angeles into an interminable, undifferentiated nightscape (check), kill all the animals (we’re working diligently, here), and build some replicants (instead, we have fast-follower telephones designed by advertising companies and manufactured by shipbuilding conglomerates [this is actually kind of amazing, in a near-future dystopian kind of way]). The very best science fiction novel, Stand on Zanzibar, is set in 02010. Anyways:

Today, in 02014, I have neighbors who know as an incontrovertible fact that they will live again after death. They literally have that old-time religion. It’s a country where a full third of adult humans believe that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time”. All this to say, there are a lot of perspectives on the question of how many times a person lives, and many of them are pretty dumb.

To be fair, humans and other living things are no great shakes. We haven’t been here long, and we probably won’t stay long either. We showed up late to the dance, and we’ll be gone before the music stops, give or take six thousand years.

We, as a species, only live once.

We, as individuals, live as many lives as we can stand.

#yolo, #indeed.

Read Pew Research’s Public’s Views on Human Evolution in order to start wondering which third of your neighbors not to let your child speak with.

Older entries


In new language ◊ An old lament.

What have you been reading? ◊ The same things we've always been reading.

Against balance ◊ Don't put milk in your coffee.

02012 performance review ◊ Welcome to the company.

The service ◊ Remembering Twitter.

The joke ◊ A reading from The Voice of the Machines.

The whole of the law ◊ The law of personal mobility, living and acting in open space, and how to make a world.

The jar ◊ It’s called a myth because it’s true.

The City & The City ◊ China Miéville's novel.

Walking with Milo ◊ Figuring out the first two weeks with our son.

Ready ◊ Ready for what’s next.

The mountain ◊ Mountains, gods, love, faith, earth, and sky.

The Smile Sessions ◊ The Beach Boys’ album, a lost-and-found recording from another world.

Watch the skies ◊ Taking a break to figure something out.

Who makes the world? ◊ An appreciation of my Apple IIc, on the event of Steve Jobs’ resignation.

Surface ◊ Consultants and employees.

What I saw ◊ An encounter in an early evening sky.

Seattle LeanCamp ◊ Artifacts and professional identities in the design and production of software.

Symbols pave the path ◊ Wandering the soft bricks of Tacoma.